‘Refugee’ is only a word: a discursive analysis of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ experiences in Scotland
Kirkwood, Steven Michael
Although the United Kingdom is committed to the protection of refugees and the integration of migrants into society, many aspects of the asylum system actually prevent access to refuge or create barriers to integration. Extant research on this topic has often paid little attention to the role of discourse in legitimising particular asylum policies and notions of integration or has otherwise neglected the social functions of asylum seeker and refugee discourse. This thesis addressed these gaps by exploring the discourse of majority group members and asylum seekers / refugees, paying attention to the relationship between place and identity and the ways that notions of intercultural contact were constructed. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with seventeen people who work to support asylum seekers and refugees, fifteen asylum seekers / refugees and thirteen Scottish locals who reside in the areas where asylum seekers are housed. The data were analysed using discourse analysis, focusing on the ways that particular narratives and descriptions function to justify or criticise certain policies or sets of social relations. The analysis illustrated that the presence of asylum seekers could be justified through portraying their countries of origin as dangerous and the host society as problem-free, whereas the presence of asylum seekers was resisted through portraying the host society as ‘full’. When discussing antagonism towards asylum seekers, interviewees constructed this as stemming from ‘ignorance’, which functioned to portray the behaviour as unwarranted while emphasising the potential for positive social change. Similarly, asylum seekers’ and refugees’ accounts of violence tended to deny or downplay racial motivation, or produce accusations of racism in a tentative or reluctant manner, implying that a ‘taboo’ on racial accusations exists even in cases of violence. The analysis also illustrated how constructions of ‘integration’ perform social actions, such as highlighting the responsibility of asylum seekers or the host society. The analysis showed how the refugee status determination process could be criticised through references to a ‘culture of disbelief’, claims that it was racist or portrayals of cultural differences that undermine the process. The right of asylum seekers to work was advocated through portraying it as consistent with the national interest. Aspects of the asylum system related to destitution, detention and deportation were criticised through portraying them as ‘tools’ that treated asylum seekers inhumanely and by constructing asylum seekers in humane ways such as ‘families’ or as ‘human’. Overall the results illustrated that, in the context of asylum seekers, notions of identity and place are linked so that constructions of place constitute identity, in the sense of portraying people as legitimately in need of refuge, and these constructions can work to justify or criticise asylum policies. Results also illustrated that victims of seemingly racist violence may construct their accounts in ways that deny or downplay racial motivations, making racist behaviour difficult to identify and challenge. The analyses suggested that ‘two-way’ constructions of integration may function to overcome the view that asylum seekers have ‘special privileges’ over other members of the community and emphasise the responsibilities of the host society. Portraying punitive asylum policies as ‘inhumane’, and constructing asylum seekers in humane ways, provides a potential strategy for reforming aspects of the asylum system.